Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett etc.
Music by: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste[a]
Cinematography: Matt Aspbury, Ian Megibben
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Death, the loss of childhood innocence, grief, mid-life crises, missing children, the end of the word due to human greed, ghosts, female emancipation within patriarchal society, the afterlife, use of fear as energy, neuropsychological exploration of emotions, oh, and death again are all heavy themes and subjects for a film. But they are not just from the works of heavyweight filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kubrick. They are subjects investigated and probed and rendered entertainment in a fantastic style by the ever-impressive Pixar studio. Their latest film Soul (2020) is yet another extravaganza of high concepts, existential themes, and scintillating visual world-building.
Soul (2020) centres around Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who longs to immerse himself in a career as a jazz musician. It’s not necessarily suggested in the opening scenes as to why Joe hasn’t made it as he clearly has musical talent. However, his dominant mother Libby (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his frivolous desire to play piano, plus Joe, like many artists out there just cannot get a break. A chance arises though when he gets an opportunity to audition for esteemed singer, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s exquisite piano playing wins over Dorothea, but then tragedy strikes as an excited Joe falls down a manhole and dies. Being a Pixar film committed to venturing into the afterlife, as it did previously with Coco (2017), Joe finds himself, not in the ‘Land of the Dead’ but rather the ‘Great Before/Beyond’ instead.
As Joe moves toward the light with the many other souls he refuses to accept this is the end. He rejects the unknown glowing light of the ‘Great Beyond’ and escapes to a world full of young, old and lost souls called the ‘Great Before’. Here he meets a cynical soul called 22 (Tina Fey), who is refusing to claim the badges required to begin her own life on Earth. This is where the story gets a bit sticky for me. I mean I enjoy narratives about life, death and the afterlife including the brilliant A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and both excellent versions ofHeaven Can Wait (1943 / 1978). However, Soul (2020) I think tries to do too much as 22’s story threatens to dominate Joe’s pursuit to get his life and career back. Moreover, the ridiculous sight of Joe’s soul ending up in a therapy cat also felt like a contrived lean toward giving the kids something to laugh at. Indeed, I felt this water-and-oil decision, while funny, undermined the more intrinsically vital themes within the narrative.
Ultimately though, having succumbed to the cultural pressure of signing up to Disney +, I did thoroughly enjoy Pixar’s Soul (2020). Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey create a fine double act with their brilliant comedic timing and performances. Moreover, Graham Norton and Richard Ayoade provide humorous voice support, and of course, the animation is incredible. Although I would actually have preferred to stay on the exquisitely drawn streets of New York more than the ‘Fantasiaeque’ lysergic acid look of the afterlife. Still, once again, Pixar have been clinical in delivering an intelligent film that delves into existential themes relating to the meaning of life. Joe’s journey, like his music, is full of verve, beauty and many surprising twists, ensuring his soul is certainly one that is worth saving.
Produced by: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman etc.
Music by: Terence Blanchard, Marvin Gaye
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra-talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard.
His latest film, Da 5 Bloods (2020), is a timely Netflix film release which encapsulates crime, heist, political, war, drama, Blaxploitation, comedy, documentary, love and experimental film genres. Lee has never been afraid of taking risks and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with BlacKKKlansman (2018) he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018 and should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. Da 5 Bloods (2020) grabs the power baton of Lee’s prior film and runs with it, delivering an entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, stylish and brilliant genre-blending story full of sustainable socio-political arguments in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The narrative begins by establishing four aging Vietnam veterans, portrayed by the magnetic ensemble of Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They meet in Ho Chi Minh City in order to venture into the jungle and locate the remains of their squad leader. During some very stylised, richly colour-saturated and impactful flashbacks, it is revealed their friend, “Stormin Norman” (the charismatic, Chadwick Boseman), was killed in combat. Furthermore, and this is the money reason they are back in ‘Nam – there is army gold in those hills. Thus, the comrades set out to locate their friend’s body, and the gold, in order to find reparation and hopefully some form of redemption.
The film begins warmly as we enjoy the company of these great actors portraying reunited friends on an old boys outing. However, the film, as it introduces further subplots involving Jean Reno’s suspicious businessmen, Desroche and Delroy Lindo’s Paul crumbling mental state, moves into far darker territory the further the men get into the jungle. Lindo himself gives arguably the best performance of his career as a soldier grieving for his lost friend and desperate to get compensation for the unjust loss of so many lives in Vietnam. His character’s downward mental trajectory is one of the most powerful elements of Da 5 Bloods (2020). No doubt Lindo will be nominated come awards time and so he should be.
The cinematic excellence on show too from Spike Lee and his production crew is to be applauded too. Lee’s box of magic tricks includes: jump cuts, aspect ratio switches, colour saturation, Shakespearean soliloquies, documentary footage, flashbacks, conveyor-belt camera tracks, stills photography, slow-motion, direct address and many other devices. The exceptional cinematography is drenched in an opulent score from Terence Blanchard and the incredible voice of Marvin Gaye. I guess my main reservations about the film would be the elongated running time, with some scenes indulgently over-running. Moreover, there were also a couple of convenient plot coincidences which could have been ironed out. Nonetheless, with Da 5 Bloods (2020), Spike Lee has delivered another bravura mix of genre and socio-political filmmaking which, like classics such as The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Apocalypse Now (1979), stare into the dark heart of humanity and find greed, war and death there. Unlike those two films though, Da 5 Bloods (2020), also contains hope, light in the tunnel, and the idea that togetherness brings strength in the face of adversity.
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***
If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.
With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.
Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.
For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.
The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.
Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.
Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.
As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).
Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.
In all the excitement, I seemed to have forgotten about this feature, but will reignite it here. Essentially, I pick a favourite film actor or director or writer or composer or film craftsperson, who I have followed and admired for some time, and pick out five of their works which resonate with me. Usually it is difficult to stick to just five selections, however, I find writing with a rule or discipline sharpens the critical mind. Today’s choice is one of the greatest actors to have walked the boards, appeared on the box, and graced the silver screen. His name is of course, Denzel Washington.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York and having initially attended a military academy, Washington would later gain a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University. He began by acting in Summer Stock theatre, but his first major break was in the television series, St Elsewhere. His performances as Dr Philip Chandler would lead to castings in prominent film roles, notably as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987). In that film he would receive his first Academy award nomination. From then on Washington would go from strength to strength traversing stage and screen roles with incredible range and skill. As writer, director and actor he is an artist who can span genres and disciplines, equally brilliant in commercial projects and more arthouse productions. Here are just five roles which I very much think he excelled. But to be honest, there are many, many more I could have included.
Glory (1989) was the first major Hollywood film to profile the fight of black soldiers to free themselves from slavery in the context of the U.S. Civil War. It is an excellent drama with some brutal battle scenes and memorable characters. None more so that Washington’s portrayal of Private Silas Trip. He is quite understandably an angry man determined to fight all the way against oppressors. Washington delivered a searing performance which would earn him a Best Actor in a Supporting role award. It is an outstanding portrayal full of power and strength.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Washington worked with Spike Lee on many film productions and Malcolm X (1992), is arguably their most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever known. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work, and Washington’s intense performance stands as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
Washington has played his fair share of heroic and complex anti-heroes trying to find their way in the world, but in David Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day (2001), he revels in the role of bad-ass corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris. Washington and Ethan Hawke are both brilliant as the mentor and apprentice narcotics officers who are about to have a very intense day of plots and double-crosses. Washington spits and chews up Ayer’s meaty dialogue as Harris, who has a devilish plan up his dirty sleeves. Ultimately, the respect between the two erodes and a violent power game ensues with surprising twists ahead. Washington won the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, and while it was well earned, it was arguably more for his body of incredible film performances overall.
MAN ON FIRE (2004)
While not necessarily the best film on Denzel Washington’s amazing acting C.V., Man on Fire (2004) is one of the more memorable films he made with uber-Hollywood genre filmmaker, Tony Scott. Washington clearly respected Scott as a man and director, and while Scott’s flashy and bombastic style could drown his actors, Washington’s talent always shone through. As John Creasy, Washington’s characterisation is that of a broken ex-military man who has killed for his country, and now realised it was all for nothing as he lost and alone. Alcoholic and suicidal, Creasy finds redemption in the guise of a young girl, portrayed brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, who following her kidnapping, goes on a vengeful kill-crazy-rampage-search-for-justice. Washington’s acting is both muscular and tender in equal measure as Scott delivers an explosive genre film of the highest quality.
Denzel Washington’s honest, down-to-earth and heart-cracking drama is a formidable character piece and acting tour-de-force. Adapted from August Wilson’s prize-winning play, the narrative bristles with authentic working-class lives of 1950s Pittsburgh, and is littered with some wonderful stories and dialogue. At the heart of the drama are Denzel Washington’s complex character, Troy Maxson, and his long-suffering wife, Rose; portrayed with significant humility by Viola Davis. Troy’s character is charismatic, and he delivers some hearty yarns from his past, but he’s also bullies everyone around him. Moreover, Washington directs brilliantly, “fencing” in the characters to create a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. By keeping the players mainly in the yard and the house we feel as trapped as they are by society, social status and their life decisions. It’s an intimate film about proper characters and real lives and overall, the performances alone make the film feel cinematic.
Written by: Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski, Daniel Hendler
Based on: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
Cast: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch, Alex Reid, Aaron Altaras, Ronit Asheri, Dina Doron, Gera Sandler, and more.
Original Network: Netflix
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
When one watches a memoir based on true events such as Netflix’s Unorthodox (2020), you realise how lucky you are in regard to the freedom you have. This isn’t about an individual going through social lockdown for good reason, but someone who is trapped by their strict religious and family traditions. Such traditions in themselves could be deemed acceptable as we must respect different ways of living. However, what if that person wants to leave their life and is not allowed? This is called incarceration of the soul and body. This is wrong. People must be allowed to choose their own way in life and not be tethered by dogma or ideology. I repeat, I respect people’s belief systems, but not if it has a negative effect on that person.
Based on Deborah Feldman’s bestselling autobiography, Unorthodox, is an impressive four-part drama which focusses on Esty Shapiro, portrayed with provocative emotion and vulnerability by Shira Haas. Esty is an unhappy Jewish woman, who finds herself trapped in a traditional ultra-Orthodox marriage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is denied many things such as a control, position, voice, personality, expression and her love of music. The compelling episodes go back and forth in time between the build up to her marriage to inexperienced, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and Esty’s escape to Berlin, where she explores the world outside her religion for the first time.
While Yanky is shown to be kindly, he is committed, some may say brainwashed, to his faith. Therefore, the marriage process is one of suppression and control. Every moment of Esty’s life is plotted, from the shaving of her hair prior to the wedding, and after, the days they are meant to have sex. The intercourse, however, proves anxious for the young couple. Rather embarrassingly though, this private matter becomes a huge issue with other family members. Privacy, it seems, is secondary as Esty is treated no better than a brood mare. Even after she escapes to Berlin, Esty is pursued by her husband and brutish cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch). Sadly, there seems to be more control in the Hasidic community than love. Of course, this is a representation of Deborah Feldman’s experience, thus, I cannot begin to understand the nature of the Hasidic Jewish community in full. For many it is probably a safe space and designed to protect individuals from the often rotten world outside. Faith and family can be great protectors, however, in this story, for one person, that life became a living hell.
In the character of Esty we are introduced to a fascinating world, and her riveting struggle to become an individual rather than follow patriarchal doctrine. While the narrative takes a slight left turn in the final episode, I can heartily recommend this mini-series. Lastly, I cannot judge if the representation of the Samtar movement is realistic, yet the setting, costumes and culture feels authentic. The actors speak, on the main, Yiddish, and in Shira Haas’s commanding performance Unorthodox we get a very realistic encapsulation of a desire to escape oppression. Haas may be diminutive in size, but her rendition of Esty Shapiro is mighty in heart and soul.
Produced by: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Sebastian Bear-McClard
Written by: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsh etc.
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This is a film about an arsehole. Aptly enough we are introduced to the main protagonist, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), as he has a rectal examination of his colon and other extremities. From here on we descend into the mired cesspool that is Howard’s dysfunctional business, family, love and extra-curricular activities. He is, on the surface, a successful businessman selling jewellery, watches and gems within New York’s Diamond district. Alas, he is also a degenerate gambler who is being chased by all manner of shark-like money lenders. Most hungry of all is Eric Bogosian’s Arno, who also happens to be Howard’s brother-in-law.
So, we find ourselves in the company of a thoroughly unedifying character such as Howard. Yet, in Adam Sandler’s brilliant performance and searing direction by the Safdie Brothers, you get caught up in his latest cynical money-making plan to sell an uncut opal rock from Ethiopia at auction. The rock itself becomes — reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) — a metaphorically blood-stained McGuffin that drags us into the underbelly of New York’s sports, pawnbroker, bookmaker, entertainment and loan shark territories. Aside from Howard’s wife and children everyone is looking for luck and a buck. Everyone’s a hustler. Everyone talks and shouts and swears over each other, creating a sense of panic throughout many scenes of deal-making and deal-breaking.
Opening with two visually very different internal examinations that involve “mining”, the Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems (2019), is a stylish and rampant anxiety inducing character study and thriller. The plot, which in itself, is quite straightforward, is wrapped in a series of heart-sweating gambles, twists and double-crosses. Supporting Sandler’s fine central performance, the Safdie Brothers find acting gold with Lakeith Stanfield’s memorable supporting turn, plus basketball legend, Kevin Garnett brilliantly playing himself! Allied to this, you also get a rogue’s gallery of personalities straight out of the local New York jewellery area itself. These characters add a further dirty authenticity to the already chaotic urban environment.
Like the Safdie Brothers previous film, the ironically titled, Good Time (2017), we are once again introduced to a set of morally repugnant characters who, rather than root for, you are dragged down into their disturbing lifestyle choices and increasingly poor decisions. Howard himself is an unrelenting addict, his own worst enemy and a whirlwind of broken promises. But, I must admit I was gripped throughout due to overwhelmingly brilliant style, cinematography, editing, direction, darkly funny script and acting performances. My only criticism is that for all the black humour, bone-breaking violence and heart-sweating suspense, the film could have easily been 15 minutes shorter. I like a lot of plot and action, but at times the narrative was over-loaded with characters and scenes that could have been chopped. Lastly, it’s great to witness Adam Sandler taking another risky role, even if Howard Ratner is fundamentally an arsehole from the probing start to the very bitter end.
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Merrit Weaver etc.
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Distributed by: Netflix
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I think one of the trickiest things that can hinder a writer, is that doubt whether it is worth telling one’s story. This is especially true of privileged or first world narratives involving wealthy characters or those deemed not having to struggle daily. For me the way to beat such doubt is to write the hell out of your story. Moreover, you’ve got to make the story relevant to all audiences by concentrating on universal themes and creating empathetic characters. Noah Baumbach achieves this by writing and directing the hell out of Marriage Story (2019); a moving drama that focuses on something we can all relate to — a relationship break-up.
The film centres on a couple of creatives, Nicole and Charlie Barber, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Charlie is a New York theatre director; Nicole is a Los Angeles actress. They have both been committed to forging successful careers. The film opens brilliantly as they attend relationship mediation, attempting to divorce amicably without the use of lawyers. Baumbach’s superb script starts strongly with each character delivering bittersweet monologues that describe what attracts them most to each other. Sadly, for them and their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), mediation fails and it’s not long before they are drawn into the Kafkaesque, manipulative and financially draining American legal system.
This is a gem of a film which finds a seemingly suited couple learning that their differences have slowly been driving a wedge between them. Charlie is a controlled and respected director who has worked his way up from nothing. Nicole is a more privileged, but equally talented actress; however, her free-spirited nature is locked in his shadows. Geographically too they are very different. While he is originally from Indiana, he has made New York his home. Moreover, while his avant garde plays have gained him critical acclaim, she yearns for the sunlight of Los Angeles and the offer of TV work. Thus, through sheer brilliance of the writing we, in a short period of time, understand and empathise with both characters’ situations.
As the narrative develops Baumbach’s script is brought to life with two incredible central performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. They imbue Nicole and Charlie with a humanity and warmth, that even when we do not agree with their actions, we are still with them. As the story was inspired by his own divorce, Baumbach cares very much about these people. Indeed, he gives each actor the chance to shine during a number of fine monologues, bitter exchanges and heartfelt scenes of acceptance and potential reconciliation. Further, the supporting cast members are also really great too. Ray Liotta as a bitter shark of a lawyer and Laura Dern, as his legal adversary, have some wonderfully biting lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, Alan Alda, as Charlie’s other legal representative, is arguably too nice and avuncular for this cutthroat business. Together these collective legal minds, while shining a plausibly negative light on divorce proceedings, added strong energy to the comedy and drama of the film.
Ultimately, I have always respected Noah Baumbach’s films because he is a very solid independent writer and director. However, with Marriage Story (2019), he has matured beyond belief to create a compelling and funny relationship drama. It is full of standout scenes, with Adam Driver ever impressing and Scarlett Johansson delivering the best performance of her career. Lastly, as someone who has experienced a very difficult break-up involving a child, I felt every moment of grief, heartache, humour, love and relief on the screen. Yet, it’s worth reliving those moments because you know you survived; and so will Charlie, Nicole and their son, Henry.
Netflix produce a lot of original content, with the quality of the films sometimes a bit questionable. However, their limited series are usually really good. This is especially proved by two recent drama releases, both based on true events and questionable law enforcement procedures. In terms of production values, drama and power, they are of the highest quality. So, here are my reviews ofUnbelievable (2019) and When They See Us (2019).
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Created & written by: Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon etc.
Directors: Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, Susannah Grant etc.
Main Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Weaver, Kaitlyn Dever, Eric Lange, Elizabeth Marvel, Danielle Macdonald, Dale Dickey etc.
Based on a Pulitzer prize winning news article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”, this superb police procedural drama charts events which occurred in Washington and Colorado between 2008 and 2011. A brutal rapist is attacking women in their homes and leaving absolutely no trace of evidence. Police in Washington are so stumped they are not even sure one of their victims, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), is telling the truth.
The series is carefully structured between Marie’s ordeals in 2008 and the subsequent 2011 police investigation led by Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver). Marie is so appallingly treated by the Washington police that you cannot help but sympathise with her. Her character is one of neglect and tragedy.
The Colorado investigation occurring in 2011 is the total opposite of the Washington one. Rasmussen and Duvall may be different in personality, yet they are both determined and fierce in their pursuit of this heinous perpetrator. Collette and Weaver make a formidable team on screen and there is much sensitivity toward the victims of these crimes within an excellent script.
Ultimately, this is a thoughtful, suspenseful and, at times, heartfelt drama. It both highlights the shocking nature of sexual crimes against women and the very different ways different police departments handle such situations. I myself was continually moved emotionally by the events and feel there is no place in this world for people who commit such wicked crimes.
Mark: 9 out of 11
WHEN THEY SEE US (2019)
Directed by: Ava Duvernay
Written by: Ava Duvernay, Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, Michael Starrbury
Cast: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham, Freddy Miyares, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Michael K. Williams
IfUnbelievable (2019) illustrates both the positive and negative results of police investigations,When They See Us (2019), paints an even more incredulous series of events with regard to the law. The drama series concerns a vicious sexual attack in 1989 on Trisha Meili, a jogger in Central Park. The police acted swiftly to arrest the alleged perpetrators. Satisfied that the five black male suspects they had in custody committed the crimes, the police, urged on by New York prosecutor, Linda Fairstein use unscrupulous tactics to gain their “confessions.”
The way these characters — Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana — are treated by the New York Police Department is only the beginning of the cruel injustice they face. From the initial crime, to the arrests, to the court case and subsequent aftermath, the drama puts you at the heart of one of the biggest travesties ever committed. The series expertly shows how the legal system fails these individuals, their families and the victim too.
Beautifully written, acted and directed, this is an incredible work of television. It combines both a fascinating style and a brutal vision of the struggle of these characters experience. The performances from the younger and older actors is excellent, although special mention must go to Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise. In ‘Part Four’, which shows his incarceration, Jerome’s portrayal oozes tragedy and solitary pathos. Indeed, the acting is so good Jerome would deservedly win an Emmy award.
Ava DuVernay, having taken a break from hard-hitting drama by directing fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time (2018), has produced another powerful and socially relevant work. These events may have occurred in 1989, but their impact echoes across the decades. The treatment by the New York Police of these black youths is also a microcosm of how minorities are treated in general by the U.S. justice system. By highlighting the tragedy of this case, DuVernay and her production team have created a landmark work of TV drama. One which is both incredibly vital and emotionally unforgettable. Be warned: there will be tears.
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series.
To celebrate his work and the fact he finally got recognised for his amazing filmmaking skills by the Oscars this year, I would like to highlight, five of his finest films that are worth watching and rewatching. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard. Here are some great examples of his cinematic work.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
DO THE RIGHT THING (1986)
Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Arguably, Malcolm X (1992), is Spike Lee’s most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever seen. The project took decades to come to the screen and Lee and Washington both faced objections from many parties for their involvement. However, the finished film a masterful biography capturing the spirit of an intelligent, passionate and outspoken individual trying to right the wrongs within American society and history. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work. The film stands ultimately as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
HE GOT GAME (1998)
From my basic research Spike Lee is revealed to be a New York Knicks fan. It’s no surprise then his love of basketball really shines through in this mix of sport, crime and personal drama. The story follows young hot-shot basketball prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and the decision he has to make in regard to which college he goes to. On paper it’s Jesus’ choice but in reality he has all manner of people attempting to influence him. These include: his girlfriend, his coach, agents, local gangsters and most pressing of all, his jailed father portrayed by Denzel Washington. Ray Allen is excellent as Jesus and Lee invokes an empathetic character study with lashings of verve and style.
INSIDE MAN (2006)
Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen both excellent as the lead cop and main criminal. Jodie Foster is brilliant too as a venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner. What makes Lee’s direction ping here is his deft handling of a complex structure within the heist genre. Moreover, Lee demonstrates he is able to convey a genre story with impeccable skill and deliver fine screen performances to boot. I especially loved the diversity of the supporting characters and the film oozes a pure New York atmosphere throughout.
BlacKKKlansman (2018) is a complex film which expertly mixes many genres, infusing musical, thriller, Blaxploitation, comedy and documentary styles, making it a joy to experience. Spike Lee has never been afraid of experimenting and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with this he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018. It should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. It is thought-provoking but never preachy for the sake of it and uses humour most often as a weapon to undermine the senseless ideologies of the KKK. Indeed, in ridicule there is hope they may eventually be side-lined to the shadows of history.
Screenplay by: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston etc.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Have you ever thought: what’s the point in carrying on? We know we’re going to die someday so why bother trying to live? Dead French bloke Albert Camus wrote an existential essay called The Myth of Sisyphus and deemed life an exercise in the absurd. He offered mythological character Sisyphus as an example. Sisyphus was condemned to immortality for deceiving the Gods and his penance was to push a massive rock up a hill over and over. Camus wasn’t all doom and gloom, because he opined Sisyphus’s struggle ultimately gave his life meaning.
Why am I skirting around such philosophical musings? Well, John Wick is a classic “Sisyphean” character; destined to a repetitive cycle of life and death with very slim reasons for carrying on. In the first film it was revenge. In the second film it was paying back a marker; and then revenge. In the current, and third film of the franchise, it’s because he broke the rules of the assassin’s world and must pay the $14 million price. Plus, more revenge.
Yet, plot and reason are not the main purpose for watching this franchise. I watch it for the non-stop-Asian-infused-rainy-New-York-noir-flavoured-non-stop-balletic-violence-and-stunts. Here the incredible death toll and bloody killing is differentiated somewhat with: animals, vehicles and assorted sharp ojects joining the array of guns and fists used to hurt the two-dimensional bad people sent by the mysterious High Table gangsters. It doesn’t pay to analyse the film with logic, so just enjoy the immaculate: set design, art direction, cinematography, choreography, editing, visuals; and all-encompassing sound and fury.
Keanu Reeves, once again ignores the limits of his emotional range to deliver a formidable physical performance. Just his face, actions and movement alone are enough to convey his desires. Meanwhile, the writers open out John Wick’s back-story; shading in his past relationships and historical beginnings. This allows us to escape New York and venture to the Middle East, for a bit of sun and much needed change of scenery.
The film also welcomes a slew of fine character actors in support roles including: Halle Berry, Jerome Flynn, Asia Kate Dillon and Angelica Huston. They join the ever reliable Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Lance Reddick from the first two chapters. Although, someone may have asked Fishburne to “rain” in his more bombastic moments, it’s still fun to see Neo and Morpheus on screen together. Oh, but the stunt dogs and 1990s B-movie action hero, Mark Dacascos, steal the show in their featured moments.
Overall, while showing signs of formula fatigue, John Wick: Chapter 3, remains a simple but wonderfully entertaining guilty pleasure. The choreography within the fight scenes and car/horse/motorcycle chases just transcend the action genre. Using: humour, pace, shock and sheer kinetic power they consistently startle and astound. Lastly, one could look at Wick’s character in mythical terms, perpetually fighting the Gods and forever pushing the rock up that hill. Indeed, I guess, like Sisyphus, Wick will carry on ad infinitum as long as there is someone to kill; and an audience wanting to watch such exquisite carnage on a big screen.